Global Witness Director Speaks on Timber and Sanctions

The Perspective

August 29, 2001

Despite efforts by Liberians residing in the Diaspora and some international organizations such as Global Witness in arousing UN attention to the link between the prevailing terror in West Africa and Liberian timber, the Security Council did not include timber in the sanctions imposed on Liberia. Hiding behind the shield of sanctions hurting the ordinary Liberian people, France and China (countries that import an elephantine portion of Liberia timber, obstructed the UN Security Council from including timber in the sanctions regime. Reports are, however, emerging that the timber industry is generating revenue which is a paramount source of arms for the Taylor regime. There are also reports that the Liberian government is still supporting the RUF rebels and that some RUF officials are still in Liberia. Global Witness, an environmental human rights group, is spearheading efforts to expose the link between the timber industry and arms supply to the RUF in a bid to persuade the Security Council in including timber in the sanctions regime. Recently, The Perspective talked with Patrick Alley, Director of Global Witness, to obtain firsthand information on its position on the inclusion of timber in the UN sanctions.

What is the probability of your effort being successful this time around so that the UN will include logging in the sanctions regime. If so, what information do you have now that you did not have when Global Witness testified at the Security Council?

Alley: Yes, I think there're quite a few new developments. I think to answer your question overall of why we're hopeful that sanctions on timber will come in this time around - I really don't know the answer to that. I think the evidence is sufficient that they should come in. The last time France and China objected to sanction on timber. I've heard from various sources that France is likely to object again on the basis that the ordinary Liberian people will suffer if timber sanctions were imposed. The really important thing to do is to illustrate that sanctions are not going to be easy, but [the Liberian government] rather than the ordinary people will suffer. I think that is the real chance we have now.

Liberia has come up with similar argument that timber accounts for 30% of its revenue, and that sanctions on timber will hurt the ordinary people. Does this mean anything to Global Witness?

Alley: Well, I am not quite sure how they derived that figure. We've done a detail study of the Liberian timber production for the year 2000 and also preliminary study of this year. In the year 2000, world market prices for Liberian timber averaged 200 per cubic meter. You are looking at a trade that was worth $187 million US dollars at the minimum. That's just the timber production that we know about. We don't know everything - I'm sure. The Liberian government declared revenue for the year 2000 is 6.6 or 6.7 million dollars - Not very much money compared to the size of the trade. If you look at timber production cost which is around $86.00 per cubic meter , you end up with a black hole of about $100 million US dollars minimum. That is about 100 million US dollars unaccounted for. I don't know what it is spent on, but I am pretty sure it was not spent on Liberia.

So, is there any evidence that suggest that since sanctions were imposed on Liberia in May of this year there has been any fresh supply of arms bought from the sales of timber to the RUF?

Alley: There are two answers to that: we do have information relating to one particular shipment that came in by sea in May and after the imposition of sanction ( that was the 10th of May) into the Harper port [Maryland County, Liberia] . And that ship was subsequently loaded with logs and exported. We've got a few report of other ships, we don't know what [were] on them, but they've been treated very differently than other ships - they are being unloaded under tight security. I think also one of the issues that people really haven't paid attention to and I think it's really important, is the use of armed militias by the timber companies. Many of the logging companies have armed militias and those armed militias are often released their troops to back up Liberian troops to go back on military operations with the armed forces of Liberia. So you have logging companies maintaining and funding armed militias which are being used by the government. So we are not just talking about arms supply, we are talking about armed men.

Is it possible for your organization to contact the home offices of these logging companies which are now based in Liberia to obtain any financial statement relevant to their operation in Liberia? This will not only convince the UN but also the ordinary people in Liberia. The only information they have is what the Liberian government is telling them in terms of how much money is generated from logging . Six or seven million dollars compared to 187 million dollars is a vast difference.

Alley: We haven't taken that route yet, it is a good idea but we haven't done it. Yes, I think the Liberian government has more questions to answer. I would like to see how they do answer those. We haven't pursue the idea. I think it is a really good idea. I think we should pursue it - you should pursue it too and see what those companies say.

France and China objected to the inclusion of timber in the Liberian sanctions during the sanctions debate. But you have mentioned that France may still object to the inclusion of timber in the sanctions. Why do you think China may not object to the inclusion of timber this time around?

Alley: I don't know whether China will object to it or not. I have heard rumors that they will reconsider that part if proofs about timber and arms link were brought forward. I should also say that France said also on the record that if the link between timber and arms could be proved then they will withdraw their objection. But to answer your question, with China, I think obviously they are the largest importer of timber in Liberia, I would be surprise if that wouldn't play a part in their decision. I don't think that will be the only reason. The Liberian government has very close relation with Taiwan, it may be that China would like to woo Charles Taylor away from Taiwan. It could also be that both, in the case of France and China, they both have business ambitions in the region and to support sanctions against Liberia may not help their overall business aims.

Do we have any evidence that since the imposition of sanctions on Liberia that arms are still going through Liberia to the RUF? Did you hear anything while you were in the region? Did you hear anything?

Alley: We haven't heard any report either way of whether arms are still going to the rebels in Sierra Leone. What we have heard in about quite specific information on this is the continued maintenance of RUF forces in Liberia. We have the names of RUF leaders, cartels and delegations in Liberia. And they are certainly maintaining their armed presence. Meeting in Sierra Leone with various diplomats was very optimistic - the RUF [forces] are disarming in Sierra Leone. I think about two and a half thousand forces have disarmed. The general mode there is optimistic. But everyone is very worried about the stability of it. Any kind of problem could go wrong - there are many RUF forces with guns than without guns.

During your visit to the region, did you reach Liberia?

Alley: No, we didn't. I will really like to go to Liberia, but given the government treatment of journalists and other people who question the timber industry, we thought it was not wise.

If you were to meet with Mr. Taylor today to advise him on what to do to avert the inclusion of timber in the sanction regime, what would you tell him?

Alley: I would say few things: First, right now the European union is considering providing 114 million euro which is about $140 million in development aid to Liberia under the Coutonou Agreement which the EU signed through African states. That is being held up over the issue of human rights and corruption. If Charles Taylor clean up the government act, then that money could be going to Liberia. Secondly, with the timber industry, the timber should have the potential that would be really valuable to Liberia. If the money from the timber industry went to the government coffer, it could be used to benefit the people. But I think right now, it is the opposite. And I think [a] push - from people like you, people like me could highlight that.

Since last year, government forces have been engaged in war with dissidents in Lofa County. Don't you think that the government has the right to import or buy arms to protect its people and territory?

Alley: Charles Taylor would not have a problem convincing the international community he needed arms to fight back insurgency if the international community weren't worried that he would use those arms to support the RUF which he had done in the past. I think he is his own worse enemy on that one. How can the international community have any faith in what he would do with the arms supply.

Thank you for your time and interest, Mr. Alley.

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